Reversing the Left’s Plot to Sabotage American Power’

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Sen. Tom Cotton’s new book Only the Strong: Reversing the Left’s Plot to Sabotage American Power, available on November 1.

***

The president is calling for you,” said the message that popped up on my phone early in Donald Trump’s tenure. I left a committee hearing and returned to my office. Though we had talked during the campaign and transition, this was our first conversation since he took office. It would turn out to be a memorable one.

I called his assistant, who patched me through. After some small talk, we got to the point of his call, a question about a potential nominee, a common topic in those early days. When we wrapped that up, I asked how he was settling into the White House and the job.

“You know, Tom, it’s good, but stuff was really screwed up around here,” Trump answered. I asked him what he meant.

“Just how Obama did things. The other night, they called me and asked for approval to kill some terrorist. I never heard of the guy.”

“Well, did you approve?” I asked.

Trump replied, “Oh yeah, but I asked why they’d called me in the first place. Didn’t they have some captain or major or someone who knew more about this guy? I mean, I’d never heard of him. ‘Sir, your guidance was to keep the last administration’s protocols in place until further direction,’ the guy said. ‘And this is the way they did it?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ he said.”

“What did you say to that?” I interjected. None of this surprised me. Having spent my first two years in the Senate on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committee, I was pretty familiar with the Obama administration’s procedures for counterterrorism strikes. But I was curious what Trump thought about it all.

“I approved it! And I told them not to call me back again, to find someone else way lower down next time. What do you think about that, Tom?”

I answered, “I think that’s exactly right, Mr. President. These decisions should be made by commanders in the field, not by politicians and bureaucrats back here in Washington.”

He was pleased and we signed off. Trump’s instincts were correct. The Obama administration had imposed needless layers of bureaucratic and legal review on these strikes as a way to micromanage our military on the other side of the world. In the Army, we used to call it the “5,000-mile screwdriver.” It’s one thing to require presidential approval for highly sensitive operations, such as the raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. But it’s another thing altogether for routine strikes against ISIS or al-Qaeda terrorists in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. Soon enough, the Trump administration formalized the president’s instincts.

Beyond the risk of a missed target, though, these rules revealed the liberal mindset about the military. The Obama administration didn’t trust the military to make such decisions. They still don’t; President Biden reinstated Obama’s terrorist-targeting restrictions on his first day in office, and reportedly formalized the changes earlier this month. Now, President Biden will get the midnight phone call for approval any time our commanders in the field want to take down a bad guy skulking on the other side of the world. The Democrats’ 5,000-mile screwdriver is back.

What’s behind it all is an unease with the military itself and doubts about the use of American power. This mindset runs through Democratic thinking about the military, whether it’s defense budgets, the civil-military relationship, or how to organize and train our forces. And it’s not just insulting to our men and women in uniform; it’s dangerous to our nation.

The Armed Forces of the United States have two simple missions: prepare for war and win war. It’s just that simple.

A military second to none is the surest way to prevent or win wars. In his famous Iron Curtain speech, Winston Churchill, fresh off victory in World War II, observed of Russia that “there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” So it is with most adversaries. Churchill thus warned against the understandable desire after years of war to “work on narrow margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength.” Mere strength is not enough; overwhelming strength is necessary to keep the peace.

Yet progressives are deeply skeptical of military strength. They understand that the military is the foundation of American power, but they harbor doubts about American power, especially when used to defend America’s interests. They prefer to use power on behalf of abstract ideals—if they will use it at all—and even then only in concert with others or through multilateral organizations. But the military remains out there, cocked like a loaded gun, ready and able to smash our enemies when called upon by strong, confident leaders. To the progressive mind, nothing could be more dangerous.

Their answer is to constrain the military. Democrats habitually slash funding for the military, setting back vital efforts to train and equip our troops. Democrats also feel unease about the military and its customs and cultures, leading them to subject our troops to mis- guided policies and priorities. And they engage in social engineering in the military to advance politically correct goals.

As a result, Democrats invariably leave the military in a weaker position than they found it, which is just fine with them. But a weaker military endangers our troops and our country by “offering temptations to a trial of strength.”

Tom Cotton is a U.S. senator from Arkansas. His new book, Only the Strong: Reversing the Left’s Plot to Sabotage American Power, is available for pre-order now and on bookstands on November 1.

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